from Reading Journal, 2003
I’m always envious of people who keep messy notebooks bursting with theatre tickets and newspaper clippings. My own notebook is a joke – I only use it when I have a firm surface to press on (so my writing will be neat), and I often practice the ‘note’ on a piece of scrap paper first. This isn’t because I fear someone will read my notebook and think I’m an idiot – it’s more that I know I won’t want to write in it once it becomes messy. I’ll say, ‘Oh well, I’ve ruined that one,’ and buy another one.
In an attempt to cure myself of this idiocy, I’ve bought an ugly new notebook, and I’ve scribbled all over the front page to remind myself that the purpose of a notebook is to write illegible nonsense. I’m using a pencil because I don’t like the way pencil looks on white paper, and I’m writing down the first thing that comes into my head. Mostly story ideas, which I write down as bad poems:
He works at the pointless,
All your mother ever did is lay waste to things
In someone else’s house
you sit on your hands –
their life looks
(To rebel against perfectionism, it’s not enough to be careless – the results of your carelessness have to be seen. Thus my reading journal should be viewed as a brave act of rebellion.)
I hope this notebook experiment will work; when I keep a notebook I feel more alert to language. Today a friend used the word ‘jandal’ as a synonym for ‘tantrum’, as in ‘I got home late last night and Steve threw such a jandal.’ The exact conversation: I asked him how his trip to Auckland went, and he said, ‘Oh god, so many jandals, and nothing to wear on my feet.’
So The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away, Richard Brautigan
I was intrigued by the excerpt Josh gave us from Trout Fishing in America, but the library didn’t have a copy available so I got this out instead. So The Wind is a strange novel, mixing the surreal with the mundane. In many ways it’s the standard coming-of-age tale, in which an adult narrator reflects on his childhood, and on the tragic event that forever changed his life. However, the novel has lots of surreal elements, and the narrative voice is quirky and distinctive.
The narrator’s childhood story is simple: as a boy he is desperately poor and has few friends. He spends his afternoons hanging out at the pond. He befriends a kid named David, and they go hunting together. On one of these hunting trips the narrator misfires and kills David.
It’s a mundane tragedy, and the narrator’s nostalgic grief is heavy-handed. I did, however, enjoy the more surreal elements of the story. After the accident, for example, the boy becomes obsessed with hamburgers. He blames the tragedy on one bad decision: on the afternoon of the accident he had wanted to buy a hamburger, but ended up buying bullets for his .22 rifle instead. He interviews every fry cook in town, believing that ‘only a complete knowledge of hamburgers can save my soul.’
There are other eccentric characters, including an old man who lives in a shed built out of packing crates, and a young couple who bring all their living room furniture with them to the pond each night, so they can sit on the couch and cast their fishing lines, surrounded by end tables and photos of their parents.
Of course, on one level I don’t really believe any of this. I don’t believe that the boy would become obsessed with hamburgers and spend hours in the library reading cookbooks, and I don’t believe in the eccentric fishing couple and their outdoor doilies and ottomans. However, I’m happy to suspend my disbelief and accept these weirdos.
Sometimes eccentric characters convince; other times, they annoy. I often get pissed off with the oddball characters that so bedevil film festival movies. It’s as though the director thinks: ‘Hey, this is an indie film, I can do whatever I want – stuff believable characterisation. Let’s have a little old lady that eats snakes and only ever leaves the house once a year, to buy a new coffee mug. How non-mainstream! How moving!’ You come out of the cinema feeling like you’ve just spent two hours staring at installation art. Other times, the characters are unbelievable and I don’t care. I don’t believe Amélie (the character) for a moment, but I still enjoyed Amélie (the film). So, how do you make eccentricity appealing? How do you persuade the reader to believe, or to at least suspend their disbelief?
Depth, brilliance and confidence all help. When Brautigan examines the motives of his ‘non-wacky’ characters, we see that he has a good understanding of how people think and act. We realise that he is an insightful and intelligent writer, and this makes us more accepting of the characters whose motivations are less obvious – we assume Brautigan knows what he’s doing. Also, his writing charms us; it is fresh, funny and distinctive. And his confidence in his characters never falters. He writes about them as though they were completely real, and he doesn’t attach caveats like ‘I know this sounds implausible, but today I saw these weird people bring all their furniture to the lake.’ Confidence also implies being unimpressed by your characters’ eccentricities; a confident writer doesn’t need to get excited about a bit of wackiness. ‘Yeah, my narrator likes to lick turtles. Big fucking deal.’
Earlier in the year I went to hear Jonathan Franzen talk at the Town Hall. Caro and I had free tickets courtesy of the American Embassy (I think). We thought we’d just grab the tickets from some sweet old man and then bugger off and sit where we liked. Instead, it seems we were to be official student representatives of the IIML (if only I’d known, I would’ve worn nicer shoes). We were given seats next to several well-dressed American women, who enquired politely after our studies and then turned back to their discussion about SUVs (essentially: oh yes, they’re incredibly inefficient and unsafe – but isn’t it nice to be so high off the ground while you’re driving?) Whenever Franzen made an anti-American remark, the women would wince, and turn and whisper to each other.
I felt a fraud going to a reading when I’d never read any of the author’s work, but I was curious about Franzen. Was he, as the Oprah’s Book Club fans insisted, a misogynist snob, or was he simply a decent bloke who’d made a few inarticulate comments to an interviewer? I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. (I’ve only ever been interviewed once in my life; the experience was terrifying and I made plenty of dim remarks. In the published article I came across like a lunatic, though this impression wasn’t helped by the interviewer’s cunning trick of asking me ‘yes/no’ questions – ‘Do you like grapefruit?’ – and then reporting my answers as though they were unsolicited remarks: ‘Ms Hill, who mentioned she likes grapefruit very much indeed, was…’).
Franzen was amusing and interesting, and I liked the essay he read. He wasn’t very gracious towards the interviewer, but then her questions were far too earnest and academic. Nobody mentioned Oprah, though he did say that his previous attempt to enter into public debate had not gone well.
I’ve always thought of writers as shy, neurotic types who would rather set fire to their notebooks than give a speech, but I’ve been to a lot of writing events this year – readings, book launches, panel discussions – and the writers have mostly been articulate, funny and charming. They even managed to appear confident and relaxed. How do they do it? Do they practise their quips for hours beforehand? Or do they just get drunk? I enjoy reading aloud, and I don’t mind giving rehearsed speeches, but I don’t think I could make witty, spontaneous jokes in front of a room full of people. If ever I have the good fortune to get something in print, I’ll suggest to the publishers that they market me as severely autistic: ‘It’s a miracle she can speak at all.’
I’ve been working for a publishing company all day, making up captions for a calendar. The calendar features huge, glossy photos of food, and then small, blurry photos of associated New Zealand scenery. So a recipe for Salt-crusted Beef and Couscous will be accompanied by a small picture of a cow standing in a field by a river. My job was to caption the cows and vineyards and cheese makers:
As summer progresses, the green hills of Marlborough take on a
soft golden hue. Below the gentle slopes, however, well-irrigated
vineyards remain a verdant green, as the grapes swell and ripen
to produce the region’s renowned wines.
This kind of work makes me mischievous; I want to sneak in a few silly words and hope no one notices. Usually I manage to resist the temptation, but last year, in an About the Author blurb for a gardening book, I mentioned the author’s ‘popular mongoose farm on the outskirts of Christchurch.’ Luckily it got picked up before the plates were made, and my boss was understanding. Nonetheless, it’s an exhausting business, fighting mischief. I never feel like writing my own stuff after a day like today; I want to make prank phone calls and glue plastic fruit to shop windows.
I’m trying to decide who to talk about for Frankie’s Show & Tell class. If I had to take along the writer I’ve ‘spent the most time with’, it would probably be Kafka.
I think you’re ideally supposed to start reading Kafka when you’re a gloomy fifteen-year-old, but I was far too cheerful an adolescent, and it wasn’t until I dropped out of University and started sorting mail at the Post Office that I felt miserable enough for Kafka. He proved to be perfect company.
When I enthuse about Kafka, people often think of The Trial and The Castle, but to tell the truth, I’m not crazy about the novels. They’re good, but I wouldn’t want to read them more than once. Someone said that we now live in such a Kafkaesque world, the novels have lost their ability to shock us. Perhaps they have a point – even my crummy Microsoft spellchecker recognises the word Kafkaesque.
I prefer the short stories and, best of all, the letters and journals. At the moment I’m rereading his Letters to Milena (Milena Jesenska, a journalist who was translating his early short prose into Czech). Milena writes to tell Kafka she has tuberculosis. He responds with an explanation for his own tuberculosis:
What happened was that the brain could no longer endure the
burden of worry and suffering heaped upon it. It said: ‘I give up;
but should there be someone still interested in the maintenance
of the whole, then he must relieve me of some of my burden and
things will still go on for a while.’ Then the lung spoke up, though
it probably hadn’t much to lose anyhow. These discussions between
brain and lung which went on without my knowledge may have
I love that ‘may’ in the final sentence (though perhaps the translator deserves this particular credit). Kafka is a lot funnier than people think, and often more cheerful. I love the twists and turns of his sentences, their odd but perfect logic. Above all, his writing is beautiful. And every time I reread his letters or diaries, I seem to understand a little more. There are some sentences whose meaning I still can’t grasp, and I like the idea that one day I might finally figure them out.
I had such good intentions for this reading journal. It wasn’t going to be a journal at all, but rather a memoir: I would go cold turkey on my addiction to cultural junk, and then document my withdrawal symptoms. (‘My name is Tracey Hill and I am a pop culture junkie.’)
I would stop watching crap television and reading murder mysteries. I would give up Internet Backgammon, and movies that promised to make me laugh, cry, and cry with laughter. Instead, I would live deliberately, albeit without having to leave my cosy Brooklyn home: Walden Pond for the X Generation is a little less demanding. (‘If I turn off Survivor, do I still have to build a hut in the woods?’) I would read only good books: the dusty ones that sit on people’s bookshelves causing asthma. I would take up drawing again, and visit art galleries and museums every weekend. And I would write about all this habit-breaking and classics-reading in an elegant and humorous way, thus proving that a person raised on a diet of media junk can, after a period of withdrawal, appreciate deep and lasting works of literature.
I thought of a title – Giving up Junk: A Year without Distractions – and decided to bind the pages into a slim A5 volume, the cover of which would feature a charcoal sketch of a sombre object. An ink pot with a quill, perhaps. Yes sir, it is safe to say I was excited.
I sent a friend a text message:
Am giving up distractions and will write about it for my
reading journal. Will be fun! Wanna borrow my Playstation
for the rest of the year?
He replied a few minutes later:
So, how is the novel going?
Is my procrastination really that transparent?